America’s love affair with Saints is over

METAIRIE, La. – Yes, the Super Bowl changed everything. It gave hope. It gave heart. And the tears and cries and the party that spilled through the still-broken city that February night the New Orleans Saints won were real, perhaps never better expressed than by a man who stood in the middle of a mob on St. Bernard Avenue in Treme and shouted:

“FEMA what? FEMA who? FEMA where?

The Saints have overcome a 3-2 start.
(John Russell/AP Photo)

“Saints!”

So what do you do when you are made to feel you saved the world, when the celebration goes on and on and on and you realize this is probably the most meaningful Super Bowl victory a city has ever had? How do you make it better?

“I think how you top it is to do it back-to-back,” said guard Carl Nicks(notes). “But not only back-to-back, but when everybody says you can’t do it. I think that would be a better story.

“If you want to be special in this league then you have to win two.”

Maybe because everybody away from here is exhausted by the Saints story and the Falcons have replaced them atop the NFC, and there is so much else to talk about with the Patriots, Jets, Steelers and Chiefs, the Saints have been forgotten. They did not start the season well and there was all the silly talk that follows a football championship of a mythical “Super Bowl hangover,” whatever that is supposed to mean.

But inside the anonymous two-story building not far from the airport, the Saints know America has stopped thinking about them and they really couldn’t care less. In some ways it’s better to not be the story; the attention had come to be so much. If anything, it’s a relief to not be the league’s story this year.

Everyone’s forgotten about them? Fine.

Very quietly, without attracting much notice, they’ve won five in a row. At 9-3, they are tied with the Chicago Bears for the second-best record in the NFC and are suddenly looking much like a team that storms through December and right into January.

This is where Saints coach Sean Payton thrives. He has always been known for creative ways of motivation, studying other coaches, looking for ideas. After all, what coach hands out baseball bats to his players before a football playoff game telling them to “bring the wood”?

And it is Payton who has managed to squelch the outside distractions while continuing to subtly deliver a message that the team can create a new legacy.

Fullback Heath Evans(notes), who came to New Orleans from New England last year, compares Payton’s approach in such matters to that of Bill Belichick. The Patriots coach is considered to be the best at finding something for a team to grasp each week and then delivering that message in a new and interesting way.

“There are a lot of similarities between the head coaches,” Evans said.

Payton did one unique thing this year: He had the offensive and defensive players sit in separate rooms one night before the start of the season and come up with a list of team goals. Then he merged those goals, printing them on a page in the players’ playbooks.

He also placed a sign on each player’s locker.

“So many of our dreams at first become impossible and then improbable,” the sign reads. Ultimately, they become inevitable.

The sign lists each season he has been with New Orleans

2006 Impossible

2007-2008 Improbable

2009 Inevitable.

The current season is left with question marks.

“The question is not how far, the question is … do we possess the constitution, the depth of faith to go as far as is necessary?” the sign reads.

Evans smiled. He didn’t want to leave New England, where the playoffs had become an expectation. But when the Saints called, he listened, mainly because he believed in what Payton could deliver. He understood a winning atmosphere and he wanted to continue in one. And even if a second Super Bowl isn’t discussed openly, the subtle message remains that the Saints must be focused on it.

“I think early on this season we were living in the past,” Evans said of the team.

In New England, the Patriots never lived in the past. And in recent weeks, neither have the Saints. Last year is slowly fading away. The country long stopped talking about it. And for the Saints, this is almost a relief.

Someone asked Payton this week what he thought about having back-to-back seasons with double-figure victory totals – a thought that not long ago would have seemed preposterous in New Orleans.

“Our goal is much higher than that,” he said.

Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Dec 9, 2010